Como

This is the fourth and final destination in the Northern Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Northern Italy circuit are described in The Northern Italy Travel Planning post.

We departed Verona early on a Friday morning to make our way to Como. Nearly 3 hours of non-scenic Italian Autostrada were endured to get to Como. Some drives in Italy can be joyous, even on Autostrada – for example, the drive from San Remo near the French border to the Cinque Terre region was lovely, and interesting with scenery and road maneuverings to keep a driver well engaged. But this drive was rather monotonous, lacked scenery with the exception of unremarkable hay and corn fields. 

The drive aside, I had the greatest expectation of Como on this trip – more so than the three other destinations – simply because it is so built up in the media, the travel sites, and even by word of mouth. In fact, I had such high expectations that I was hoping I wouldn’t be let down – especially given that we had toured Lake Garda while in Verona one afternoon, and I thought it was a lovely experience – even thought I could see myself as a resident there. So arrival came with great expectations, and anticipation.

 

Arrival

The Como apartment was located in the heart of the old town, as a matter of fact too much into the center. I neglected to pre-plan for a parking garage as my initial stop upon arrival with the car. This is something I usually do to avoid driving to the apartment, unloading the luggage, then relocating the car to a garage.

At first, this doesn’t seem like something particularly bad, or even to be avoided, unless you can imagine what driving in the center of some European cities, towns, and villages might be like. There are roads that are unfit for two way traffic, but are legal for it, and are used regularly in that fashion – at speeds that would both amaze and induce fear to a non-European, but especially non-Italian (where maniacal driving is an art form).

And so I pulled the Alfa Romeo right up to the apartment building door, and boldly parked wherever the heck I wanted, as if I lived in the neighborhood. And I did have to negotiate tight little lanes that not only had two way traffic, but pedestrians as well. Our hostess advised to move the vehicle to a parking garage as quickly as possible to avoid a hefty fine for parking in the residents-only center of town. She even took a photo of my license plates to notify the authorities that I was a guest, and avoid the automatic fines produced through the camera system monitoring the center.

The apartment was lovely, roomy for a couple, had an excellent shower (important every day), and a refrigerator that was up to US standards in keeping things cold – nothing worse than not getting your beer or wine down to the right temperature in your domicile. And most importantly, the bed was very comfortable.

 

Settling in

Walking around Como’s old town, just in front of our secure apartment building was pure immersion. It felt like we lived there, and we were part of the neighborhood. The old town was fluid with locals going about their daily lives, and lacked the density of tourism that denies any feel of immersion.

There were shops, restaurants, markets, and a beehive of activity as we explored right from our front door – and it had a small town feel to it. It would take only an hour or two to walk the entirety of the old town, even with a “smell the roses” kind of pace. The architecture is 400+ years old, with three lovely churches in the old part of town, but everything looked tidy and well-kempt. This gave me an overall excellent first impression of the old town, which continued as I spent more time exploring her.

 

Discovery Trek

The first opportunity for discovery is simply wandering around the old town of Como, inside its ancient city walls, randomly walking along narrow medieval lanes that are surprisingly vehicle accessible, and enjoying a gelato as the hour or two passes while taking in the scenery.

 

The other noteworthy discovery opportunity is the town of Brunate at the top of the 10 minute funicular ride. Restaurants and shops greet the tourist at the end of the funicular, along with an opportunity to take a 30 minute walk to the lighthouse, a waypoint on a much longer hike possible along the lake. There are grand views, and in particular exceptional views from the terrace and interior of the appropriately named Ristorante Bellavista, where we had a lovely, and relaxing meal as described in the Food Scene section of this post.

 

Lake Como Cruise to Bellagio

An excellent opportunity for discovery is hopping onto one of the regularly scheduled boat “navigations” to various parts of Lake Como, which allow for the exploration of a variety of towns on the lake, along with their majestic and historic villas.

A popular destination is Bellagio, a beautiful town in its own right, with excellent restaurants and historic villas. We had an exceptional meal with a view in Bellagio at La Punta, as described in the Food Scene section. Bellagio is a grand stop on the ferry system, taking tourists by the dozens on both a “slow” two-hour long, open-air type vessel, as well as an enclosed catamaran with a one-hour duration.  While the catamaran is faster, it tends to be a hotter ride as the vessel is enclosed with little wind circulation. We spent five hours round trip to Bellagio, walking around a bit, and enjoying a fabulous meal. One could easily spend days exploring the various little towns dotting the lake by ferry. This is what Lake Como is all about.

 

 

Food Scene

La Punta in Bellagio

This is a beautiful restaurant with outdoor seating facing the water in Bellagio, about an hour boat ride from Como. Smoked fillet of Lavarello with toast, and caprese salad to start, grilled lake fish, and fried lake fish as main courses. The fried lake fish selection included an anchovy-like lake fish which was missing from the grilled plate as they are too tiny to grill. The fish was very fresh, and the variety was good. I highly recommend this restaurant for both the views in Bellagio, as well as the the dining experience.

 

Cucina di Elsa

This restaurant was recommended by our hostess, and was very close to our apartment in Como. It also received great reviews on TripAdvisor. Shrimp and octopus salad to start, we both ordered squid and shrimp as our main, and my wife ordered a mixed salad on the side. The  octopus salad was actually quite exotic. It had, among other things, shaved almonds, fresh pineapple, avocado, cabbage and rocket salad in addition to the octopus and shrimp. A lot more than was described in English on the menu. The mix was a little unexpected,  but it turned out to be an excellent combination of ingredients. The shrimp and squid were skewered, lightly rolled in breadcrumbs, and broiled – both very tender.

 

Bellavista

A restaurant at the top of the funicular with a fabulous view overlooking Lake Como. I thought I was going to buy an expensive, but mediocre meal and get a fabulous view overlooking Lake Como and its city namesake way down below. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality and value of the meal we had. We ordered a charcuterie plate, and a cheese plate for starters to share, then fillet of perch with polenta each, and grilled vegetables to share for the main course. The charcuterie plate had six varieties of salumi and dried beef, along with thinly sliced fat. An excellent medley, with some a little spicy, some a little fatty – there was one variety that had a hint of liver to it, with an earthy flavor. The cheese plate had a very good array too – six samples from around the region, ranging from sharp, to pungent, and mild. Even the bread had an excellent assortment, with one type crunchy like paper-thin toasted focaccia – it was fantastic with the salumi and cheese. The Lake Como perch and polenta was an excellent blend of flavors, to my surprise. Honestly was expecting a tourist caliber meal with an excellent view and was very pleasantly surprised by the food. A highly recommended experience.

 

Ristorante Sociale

This restaurant was recommended by our hostess, a true example of local Como cuisine, and a good value. It is located just around the corner from the duomo on a quiet side street. Having been in Italy for 9 days without a pasta dish, I thought I’d try the linguine with octopus, fresh tomato, and potatoes as my first course. My wife ordered the Parma ham with melon. The linguine was simple, fresh, flavorful and an excellent first course. I particularly liked that it was not too al dente, something which upscale Italian restaurants tend to do with their pasta, and not to my liking. The melon was very ripe and juicy and tasted better than any melon we’ve had in the United States. I ordered the San Petro filets with potatoes and black olives. as I was in a fish mood that day.  My wife ordered the Osso Buco with risotto and gravy. The osso bucco was tender, with the saffron risotto slightly al dente. The San Petro filets were very mild and tender. A nice last meal in Northern Italy, which was topped off with gelato and a walk around town as a light rain started to fall. I highly recommend this restaurant for the good ambiance, dining experience as well as great value.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Como. I was concerned that my expectations of Como and its surrounding lake, were so high that I was in for a possible disappointment. My concerns were unfounded, because Como delivered on every level. The little town of Como was lovely and easy to get around, lacking the throng of tourism one might expect. The lake itself was a treasure, dotted with little towns and villas up and down its coast. This area would merit 2 weeks or more for a thorough exploration. And it’s definitely worthy of a return visit should I be traveling anywhere near this gem of Northern Italy.

Related Travel Planning

Related Destinations

 

 

Northern Italy Travel Planning

Northern Italy Travel Planning - Milan, Genoa, Portofino, Verona, Como

Motivation – Northern Italy Travel Planning

This is about travel planning – an exercise in imagination regarding where to go, and moreover, why go there. It helps me set my own expectations about what’s to come at the selected destinations. The theme of this trip is a selected region within a single country – Northern Italy.

Italy is a country I continue to return to, and continue to discover, time and again. The regions I’ve already visited are varied, and differ from one another in geography, climate, cuisine, language, and other dimensions I have yet to discover. But they’re all interesting.  

Having passed through Milan several times previously in transit to Venice, and Florence, I knew I wanted to eventually spend time there. Milan is the anchor of this Northern Italy trip, being both its entry and exit points, with the rest of the destinations visited in a circuit.

I wanted to visit the Ligurian Italian Riviera, specifically the town of Portofino and thought it would work out well as a day trip from Genoa.

Having previously been to Venice, I wanted to further explore the Veneto region, and do so through stopovers in smaller towns that would present a different kind of profile, and less densely touristed. It was a toss-up between Vicenza and Verona. I picked Verona because it made a tighter geographic circuit, and it was closer to Lake Garda – I thought it might be nice to explore there if time permitted.

And finally, I needed to see Lake Como, and the wonderful towns, and villas dotting its shores that I’ve read so much about in the media, and travel blogs.

 

Itinerary – Northern Italy Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 9 nights on this trip, scheduled over the American Independence Day holiday, the 4th of July.  Four destinations would be a challenging itinerary as transit time would cut into exploration and discovery, but I really wanted to see all four destinations. I thought Milan deserved the extra time as compared to the other 3 destinations as it was by far the grander city, with the most exploration to be done.

 

Milan – 3 nights

 

Genoa – 2 nights

 

Verona – 2 nights

 

Como – 2 nights

 

Logistics – Northern Italy Travel Planning

From my home base in Atlanta, nonstop flights to Milan are available through Delta, and Alitalia as a Delta code share. While non stop flights are by far the most convenient, they can be very expensive, especially for the summer high season. Typically finding nonstop round trip tickets under $1,000 is pretty rare because the International market is dominated by Delta, and the lack of competition out of Atlanta. But I happened upon a flash sale by Alitalia where they were discounting coach fare to under $700. At that price point it was a good value, so I jumped on the opportunity.

With 4 destinations, and each separated by a three hour drive from the previous on my selected circuit, it logistically made little sense to use trains, or any other public transportation as it would take even longer to get to the next destination. Trains in particular may have multiple stops, may not run on time, may require a change with added connection time, and so on. Therefore I elected to rent a car, and here too I found a bargain through Rentalcars.com on an Alfa Romeo.

Car rental is a bit different in Italy in that insurance coverage is compulsory for primary coverage. Most insurance comes with high deductibles, and full coverage is either not available or comes at a high price. I typically use American Express as my primary coverage when possible, or as the secondary coverage when primary insurance is compulsory, as in this case with Italy.  This has worked well for my personal situation.

I have a strong preference for apartments over hotels for several reasons. In general, apartments are a better value as compared to hotel rooms because they have much more space, can come with a washing machine so that both excess luggage and laundry services can be avoided, and are typically less expensive than hotel rooms – sometimes much less expensive for a much better experience. And the most important reason for apartments over hotel rooms is that it leads to a much more immersive experience for me.

I can find apartments in the center of the old part of town in most of the destinations of interest, which leads to more exploration time because I’m already located where I usually need to be for my style of travel, and I avoid transit time to the center of town. An apartment feels more like being a resident as compared to a hotel room. I found excellent apartments for each of the four destinations on this trip using a combination of Homeaway.com, and Booking.com

 

Resources – Northern Italy Travel Planning

Google Flights is my standard tool for research, and planning airfare. There are plenty of others, and I’ve tried most, but find that I really don’t need to save the very last nickel at the cost of spending more time chasing that nickel.

Booking.com, and Homeaway.com, were used to book all of the apartments for this trip. My preference is to avoid Airbnb because they’re not transparent with property locations, and do not promote the size of their properties in their standard description.  But I do use them if I can circumvent their deficiencies.

Google Maps is absolutely indispensable for planning purposes. I shudder to think what trip planning would be without it. I download the maps for the countries I travel, to avoid being out of cell range (highly unlikely in Europe), and to navigate should I exceed my daily data allowance.

Google Translate is installed on my phone and smart watch with Italian already downloaded for this trip. This way I can translate on the spur of the moment even if I have no data left for the day, or if I’m out of cell range (which still happens when indoors in some locations).

Tripadvisor is awesome for advanced travel planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot. 

 

 

Related Destinations – Northern Italy Travel Planning